Sunday, October 31, 2010

UVic Fukuoka fun days

My old law school back in Canada - UVic - has a close relationship with Kyudai. One of the effects of this is that we are treated to the occasional visit by UVic law profs, giving me and the other UVic alumni here the chance to play host and show our distinguished visitors around Fukuoka.

In 2008 shortly after my own arrival Mark, a UVic prof specializing in a number of fields, arrived to teach a course in securities regulation. Unfortunately I was the only UVic grad present during his time here so our hospitality was limited to a lunch at Gusto, a "family restaurant" of (I'm shamed to admit) dubious quality. He displayed admirable graciousness throughout the meal in not pointing that fact out:In July of this year we were graced by a visit from Donna, the Dean of UVic law. With a whole team of UVic grads present at that time - Anita, Andy and I - we were able to show her a bit more Fukuoka hospitality. We took her around Dazaifu and had a really nice time there:
Last week we were visited by Martha, UVic's tax and EU law specialist, who had come to give a lecture on international taxation at Kyudai. The lineup of UVic alumni had changed somewhat with Andy having gone back to Canada and Brett having arrived shortly thereafter. After being treated to dinner on the first day of her visit, we took her to the Fukuoka Museum of Modern Asian art. Brett would probably like me to make it clear that he is pointing not to himself but to the "UVIC" on his shirt in this photo:
We had gone to this museum during Donna's visit as well and I think we are developing something of a tradition of taking UVic people there. Its a nice museum with some traditional "Modern" art:
And the more contemporary head-scratching entries:
After the museum we bade Martha farewell and Brett headed to a department store called "The Loft" where Ena and I later crossed paths with him. He was in the middle of some Halloween costume purchasing, so we followed him around a bit to see what he got. The racks of gag nose-hair caught my eye:
Ena and I did a bit of wandering around on our own, pausing to ponder the imaginative world of Japanese stuffed-animal design:
After that we headed off in search of dinner. The intimate lights of a hidden alleyway beckoned:
Lanterns nestled snugly beneath a canopy of lit offices in the towers beyond:
We settled into an Indian restaurant to dine on the "Suraj" set:
Served under the warm glow of ancient chandeliers:
A fitting end to yet another UVic Fukuoka fun day.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Bowling for Baseball

We had a rainy weekend and decided to do some indoor stuff. Off to the bowling alley we went.

Ena's mood while bowling varies with the color of the ball. Red is serious:
While gold is happy:
We both worked on our form:
And Ena got her first strike in the 4th frame:
We played two games, I bowled a 194 in the second, which is my high score in 10 pin. Ena for her part proved exceptionally talented at setting up spares, improving her score dramatically in the second game, and we both had a great time.

The bowling alley also has batting cages and they gave us a 2 for 1 deal. In an effort to avoid embarrassment I meekly strode right past the "140 kmh" cage and directly to the "72kmh" one, where I was at least able to make contact with most of the pitches:
Ena didn't take any swings but did pose for a photo in her batting stance. She reminds me of a young Cincinnati Reds outfielder named Eric Davis from the late 80s, though I suspect this may have been coincidental rather than a conscious attempt on her part to replicate his stance:
I also posed for a baseball card type shot:
My body, incidentally, is almost completely immobile today. I haven't played baseball regularly in about 15 years and, it turns out, haven't used most of the muscles needed to swing a bat in that time.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Writing about Japan: The Horrible and the Exceptional

Across the internet there is a rather extensive world of English language writing that is tied together by the single thread of its common subject matter: Japan. This blog occupies a relatively obscure, seldom-visited corner of that world, which is exactly where I want it to be.

In that world, there is a rather eclectic mix of writers. Some have never been to Japan but have a keen interest in something from Japan (comics, movies, video games, etc) and write about that. Others have visited Japan as tourists and may have put up a few photos and some notes about their travel experiences on a blog like this one. Still others are experts in a certain field (finance, international politics, trade, etc) whose writings occasionally touch upon the situation in Japan. Far and away the largest part of that world, however, is taken up by foreign residents in Japan like myself. That part of the world, which for the moment I take to exclude academic writing, is what I want to talk about here.

If we were to develop a sliding scale of quality of writing, with one end being "exceptional" and the other "horrible" then most of the writing in this world would, regrettably, fall on the latter end of the scale. Only a very small percentage would be anywhere near the former.

In terms of horrible Japan writing, I think the single biggest repository is the commentary section of Japan Today, an internet-based news site that mostly focuses on Japan. The commentary section of that site sometimes features items taken off of wire services like Kyodo which, though not particularly interesting, at least display the fact that someone proofread them before distributing them.

The majority of the articles, however, seem to be written by a class of relatively new foreign residents to Japan who are keen to publish something about Japan yet don't actually know enough to write something worth reading. The existence of this class of individuals combined with the apparent absence (or at least insufficiency) of editorial standards at Japan Today combines to create the perfect storm of bad Japan writing.

Some of these articles are embarrassingly bad rants clearly written after someone had a bad experience and is going through some form of culture shock. Really they belong on something like a blog (uh, yes, like this one, I know) rather than a news site. The worst example of this kind of article is this one, in which the clearly embittered author felt compelled to write an extensive treatise after being told that his blonde highlights weren't appropriate in a Japanese workplace.

Another would be this one, which I've discussed on here before, in which the (Canadian) author complains at length about the customs of Japanese baseball fans. The most mind boggling aspect of this article is that its author - whose writing displayed such an astonishing degree of cultural insensitivity and obtuseness - now runs a business (I swear I am not making this up) in which he teaches cross cultural communication! The word "ironic" doesn't even begin to capture the essence of that contradiction.

A second general type of bad writing is the person who writes as though he/she were an expert in a field in which they clearly have no knowledge. This week's Japan Today provided a good example of that type with this gem. You'll note that the article is titled "Eminent Domain Laws in Japan Notoriously Weak" and the author states in the first paragraph that it is an "article entirely for the topic of Eminent Domain laws in Japan."

Now if you are a sucker for punishment and actually read the whole article you will notice a very interesting thing. At no point in the entire article does the author mention a single, solitary Japanese law related to eminent domain. Nowhere, not a one. Is that not strange? I mean you would kind of expect an article about Japanese eminent domain law to at least mention some Japanese eminent domain laws, right? Is that not reasonable to expect?

I believe the omission is explained by the simple fact that the author clearly has absolutely no knowledge of eminent domain law in Japan. In fact the article displays an astonishing degree of confusion about law in general. In the first three paragraphs he discusses landlord-tenant law and then rather abruptly switches to a general discussion of eminent domain in the fourth paragraph without displaying any awareness that the two are completely different things. Landlord-tenant law deals with the relationships of landlords and tenants, eminent domain with the relationship between landowners and the state. They have very little in common and spring from entirely different policy concerns and legal doctrines.

I suspect, though I have no proof, that the author may have done his research for the article entirely on Wikipedia (from which all the facts he cites are available in English). The poor quality of the article is further demonstrated by the fact that the main piece of evidence he provides to support his assertion that "eminent domain laws in Japan are notoriously weak" clearly contradicts that assertion. That case was the construction of Narita airport, which was delayed - according to him - by violent protests. This (from what I know) is factually correct, but it completely contradicts his claim about eminent domain laws. The protests were caused by the expropriation of the land which, of course, could not have occurred without the effective exercise of the state's eminent domain power. In other words, the delays were caused by protests which had nothing to do with "weak" eminent domain powers but the exact opposite - effective eminent domain powers. The author doesn't even notice the contradiction.

These are but some of many examples of such poor writing. To the extent, if any, that bad Japan writing differs from bad regular writing, I think part of it can be explained by a certain hubris that accompanies new arrivals to Japan. Having lived here for a few months or even years they feel that they know the country better than people back home. Which is probably correct, but it unfortunately may lead them to over-estimate their own knowledge and write stuff completely beyond their capability. God knows I've been guilty of this myself on numerous occasions, though thankfully I never tried publishing any of it. Well, save on here!

Anyway, as I said above, the number of writings on the other end of the scale - the "exceptional" - is regrettably quite small. So this will be short. But I absolutely have to put a word in about one anonymous blogger who I think, far and away, produces the best quality writing about Japan in the world of long-term-resident- foreigner blogs (which is, admittedly, a small world). The blog is entitled Spike Japan. Most posts are sort of a cross between travel narratives and general commentary on the state of Japan's economy, particularly in the declining rural part of the country.

The writer scores something of a "hat trick" in blog-writing talent. First, the subject matter of most of his posts are quite interesting as he mostly visits places that have an interesting story behind them - often dealing with the folly of the bubble years or the bittersweet decline of a rural community facing economic collapse. Second he brings a talent for writing that reminds one of Alan Booth, one of the best travel writers ever to visit these shores. The posts are laced with dry wit and an effective ability to draw the reader into the story that unfolds. Third when the author strays into commentary he skillfully avoids making ham-fisted attempts at elucidating deep meaning where there is none or the general laziness that leads some writers (including myself on occasion) to rely on over-generalizations or half-assed research. He doesn't necessarily provide in-depth analysis but he does do his research and presents useful facts that (unlike Japan Today commentators) are clearly drawn from non-Wikipedia sources.

So if you've got some free time and an interest in Japan based writing, I strongly recommend his blog.

Japan Today's commentary section on the other hand is to be avoided like the plague.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

My New Hat

OK, let me explain.

Well, if you are a baseball fan, let me explain. If not, don't waste your time reading this.

I'm very picky about hats. When I find one I like, I stick to it. Good hats are hard to find.

So I've been dreading this day for a long time. My beloved blue hat, the hat I've been wearing in half the pictures on this blog, has slowly been falling apart. I've had it for over 6 years and worn it just about every day during that time. Ena gave it to me back in 2004 when we were still living in Himeji. Its been through law school, climbed mountains, been left in restaurants, had just about everything imaginable spilled on it, been across the Pacific twice and done a whole bunch of other stuff. But its developed quite a few holes and after some deep soul-searching I decided that it has earned a quiet life of semi-retirement as my back-up hat.

In considering a replacement I made the decision right off the bat that I wanted to do something I haven't done since high school: make a baseball cap my regular hat. In high school I wore a New York Yankees cap and I don't think a photograph exists of me from the years 1990 thru 1995 without one. I gave them up after finishing high school, a year which also saw the retirement of Don Mattingly and along with it the end of my interest in the Yankees.

I have some mixed feelings about wearing a baseball hat, which is related to the mixed feelings about Major League baseball since 2004. That was the year the Expos left Montreal. My high school days as a Yankee fan were more of a fling, my heart really always belonged to the Expos, the team my support naturally gravitated towards . From the first game I went to way back in 1980 with my grandpa, aunt and dad to the last in 1997 when I took my Dad to see Pedro Martinez pitch against the Dodgers just before he (er, my dad, not Pedro) retired and moved west I've been an Expos fan. It was a pretty big blow when they left town, even though I hadn't been to a game (or Montreal for that matter) for 7 years at that point.

Anyway, my first choice for a hat to replace old blue would have been an Expos hat. Unfortunately those are not an easy to find item in Fukuoka. Remarkably however I actually did find one. But what I found was not an Expos hat as I remembered it, but one of these hip-hop style hats with a bunch of crap on it that look nothing like what Expos players actually wore. The Expos logo wasn't even on the front of the cap, it was way off to the side. Clearly that wouldn't do.

My next thought was to buy a Hawks hat. After all, I am a Hawks fan and I do live in Fukuoka. But I couldn't bring myself to buy a Hawks hat. The Hawks hat has no soul. The Hawks hat has a big "S" and a big "H" in yellow letters. The "H", obviously, stands for "Hawks, but the "S" stands for "Softbank", the name of the team's corporate owner.

That is one thing I really hate about Japanese teams, the fact that all of them (except the Yokohama Baystars and, occasionally, the Hiroshima Carp) are named not after the city they play in but after the company that owns them. Having a team that represents your city is something you can get behind. Having a team that represents some faceless corporation is not, especially if said corporation is in the decidedly consumer-unfriendly cell-phone business as Softbank is.

More important from a hat-purchsing point of view is that the Hawk's hat has no tradition to go with it. They just have a revolving door of corporate owners and each time the owner changes they change the name, uniform, color scheme etc. 5 years ago they were the Daiei Hawks (department store chain) and a few years before that they had been the Nankai Hawks (railway company). So the current hat has only been around for a few seasons and I know that in a couple years from now it'll probably be replaced by god only knows what.

Other teams here have a bit more consistency, like the Hanshin Tigers (railway company) and Yomiuri Giants (Newspaper company) that have been owned by the same company for a long time, but I don't cheer for them.

So I had to bite the bullet and get a major league hat. Ena took me around town to do some hat shopping and we ended up at Hawkstown mall, which has a big baseball store. The selection of major league hats was basically limited to MLB teams which had Japanese players: the Yankees, Mariners, Dodgers, Astros, Red Sox and Pirates.

I didn't think it would be right to go back to the Yankees hat and ruled that out right away. The "LA" on the Dodgers hat only served to remind me that Montreal fans now have something in common with old Brooklyn ones, so that was right out. The faint echo of a Yankee fan left in me couldn't stomach wearing a Red Sox hat and the Astros hat just looks stupid so I was left with a choice between the Mariners and the Pirates.

I've been following the Mariners for a few seasons and considering them as a possible new favorite team for a while. I lived near Seattle for a few years and kind of like Ichiro. It was nice seeing Griffey go back there to end his career too, even though it didn' t work out too well this year. So the Mariners hat had all that going for it.

But the Pirates hat? Looking at it, I just knew it was the right one. If there is one thing that contemporary American culture can truly be proud of, I would say it is the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball cap.

Its brutal simplicity is perfection. A big yellow "P" on all-black and that is it. The Mariners cap with its complicated nautical logo looks very amateur in comparison. And the Pirates cap is more or less the same cap worn by all time greats like Honus Wagner (albeit in different colors), Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell and pre-steroids Barry Bonds. What an icon. They were wearing that hat 100 years ago and they'll probably still be wearing it 100 from now.

And the Pirates themselves? Well, they did play in the NL East against Montreal, which is sort of a black mark on them. But I absolutely love the fact that they are the worst team in Major League Baseball. I love the underdog. This year marked their 18th consecutive losing season. That isn't just a National League record in futility, it isn't just a major league record in futility: it is an all-time record in every single major professional team sport in North American history. Gotta love that. They also have some pitiable similarities to Montreal's final years: low attendance coupled with the threat of relocation looming in the background. I've never been to Pittsburgh and probably never will, but somehow the total miserable experience of that team translated into the perfect hat-sales marketing campaign focused directly on me. I assume this was by chance rather than design.

So there it is: my hat shopping process described in a huge essay. Its a common refrain that women spend much more time and thought than men on shopping for clothes. But the sheer complexity, agonizing, self-doubt and trepidation that accompanied my decision to make what to anyone not a life-long baseball fan would consider a routine purchase has done a lot to dispel that myth for me.

Go Bucs!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Oh Kyoto

I'm really starting to dislike Kyoto.

Well, actually, I like Kyoto, but I also have a lot of antipathy towards it. I've been to that city about 8 or 9 times. Its got a lot going for it - loads of beautiful cultural sights and other things.

Just a few weeks ago I was offering the city faint praise on here. As usual, every time I start to display fond feelings for it, the city unveils a whole new reason for me to have mixed feelings about it.

This time its because they are going to tear up a nice park (well, a large part of the park anyway) and build a giant aquarium on the spot. You can read about it (well, more accurate to say that you can read criticisms about it) here and here.

Mainly this makes me upset because I hate to see green space getting torn up on principle. More than that though I don't like to see it torn up for something that really doesn't make much sense.

To recap, a landlocked city which has no maritime connection but a unique wealth of UNESCO world heritage sites is going to rip up some of its rare urban greenery to build a place to see fish in the expectation that it will cause tourists to flock to the city.

Never mind that the neighboring city of Osaka - which actually sits on the sea - already has a huge aquarium. Never mind the fact that this will include a dolphin tank (re: "The Cove"). Never mind that public resources could be much more effectively used promoting the city's natural and historical attractions. Never mind that.....oh never mind. It just seems like a bad idea, enough said.

One thing to note is that Kyoto is following what seems to be a time-honored tradition of ill-advised one-ups-manship among cities here. The rule seems to be that whenever city A builds something really big and flashy, cities B through Z have to follow suit and build their own versions of whatever it was that city A built.

Theme parks are one example. After Tokyo Disneyland opened in 1983, a large number of localities in Japan followed suit with a theme park of their own. This process accelerated in the 1990s when theme parks were seen as a way to prop up local economies. While Tokyo Disneyland was and continues to be a massive success, the vast majority of the copy-cats (with exceptions like USJ in Osaka) have been horrendous failures, as I've noted here before. Fukuoka has a couple of these like Kashi kaen and Uminonakamichi, parks with ridiculously bad rides that somehow defy economic logic by remaining in business despite being completely deserted most of the time:
Another example is that most major cities in Japan have at least one giant ferris wheel. Fukuoka does most cities better by having two of them, built right next to each other:
At one point in their recent histories several major Japanese cities briefly boasted hosting a record-setting ferris wheel for however long it took for another city to build one slightly bigger.

The problem of course is that once a bigger one gets built elsewhere the ferris wheel that used to be biggest becomes obsolete and economically hopeless. The big ferris wheel in the above photo is now permanently closed and awaiting dismantling.

So, anyway, Osaka has a big, successful aquarium so Kyoto has to have one too. Well, obviously this is just conjecture on my part, I have no idea what the city planners were thinking when they approved this thing (behind closed doors as opponents of the project have complained). Still, it does seem to fit the general pattern. If they were turning a parking lot or former industrial site into an aquarium I probably wouldn't complain so much. Go ahead, blow your money away. It does seem a real shame though that a bit of parkland is being diverted from the public good in such a way.

(Note: the image at the top of this post is from Wikipedia).

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Fukuoka Garden Tour Part 2

Ena and I got to complete our Fukuoka garden tour by visiting the Japanese garden at Ohori Koen which had been closed on our last visit.

Its a really nice garden, probably the biggest in Fukuoka (though small by "big" garden standards). They didn't display much imagination in naming the garden, which is literally called "Japanese garden." Even in Japanese that is what it is called (日本庭園).

Other than that though, its great. Admission is only 240 yen. When we paid the person at the gate offered us a spray from two aerosol cans of bug repellent, which we declined much to our later regret. When you enter you are greeted with some nice trees and streams running along a path:
The path leads to the main feature of the garden, its large pond:
The path takes you around it:
You can go up a little hill covered in Momiji trees and get an excellent view of the pond from beneath their canopy:
There are several artificial waterfalls and streams:
After circumnavigating the pond we took a seat on some nice little stools overlooking it. This was where the bug repellent would have come in useful, tons of mosquitoes swarmed us and we had to move on after a couple minutes:
After that we went to the other part of the garden, which makes good use of the borrowed scenery of Ohori Koen's lake:
They've got a raked sand garden here:
And a series of winding stone pathways leading through the trees and streams:
They've also got a teahouse, but they don't seem to offer any tea service like the other gardens we've been to so we couldn't go in:
After the garden we got back on our bikes and did a little riding around Ohori Koen. Ohori Koen has my favorite short bike ride in Fukuoka. There are three islands in the lake, which are all connected by cute little bridges, allowing you to cross the lake over them. Its nice for a walk or bike ride. We stopped to sit and relax on one of the islands for a little while:
We had a nice little view, and no mosquitoes:
I think I would rate Ohori Koen's Japanese garden as the second best in the city. Yusentei just edges it out because of its really fantastic tea house and more authentic, historic feel (Ohori Koen's garden just dates to 1984). Its a great garden though, well worth a visit.

Related Posts:
- Fukuoka Garden Tour (part 1)

Monday, October 4, 2010

Fukuoka Garden Tour

Fukuoka is not generally known as a garden city. And this is reasonable, because it isn't one. Home to one and a half million people but not a single "big" garden to be found in the whole place. This is a bit of a shame to a Japanese garden lover like myself. Even tiny Takamatsu, one-fifth the size of Fukuoka, boasts a huge garden that in my opinion puts Victoria's Butchart Gardens to shame.

What Fukuoka lacks in big gardens however it makes up for in little gardens. There are a lot of them, scattered throughout the city. I think the best one is Yusentei, the garden I liked so much on my first visit that I made the 15km bike ride back the very next day because I wanted Ena to see it too. There is also a nice little garden in Ohori Koen that I visited with my dad while we went Cherry blossom viewing last year.

Yesterday Ena and I did a little bike tour to two of Fukuoka's other little gardens that we hadn't been to yet. Our original plan was to take in three, including the one at Ohori Koen that Ena hadn't seen, but it turned out to be closed on Mondays so we only squeezed the two in.

The first one we went to was the flower garden at Hakozaki shrine, just up the road from our place. We pass by it all the time but for some reason in the two years we've been here we have never gone in.

Its a pretty small garden that you can walk through in about 15 minutes, but for the 200 yen admission its a good deal. I like the fact that they use the honor system to collect the admission fees, during the off season (ie now) nobody mans the gate soyou just put your money into the box as you enter. Its a bit of a testament to the honesty of this society that they can do this, in Canada it would never work:
There weren't any other visitors yesterday. The garden has a number of specialty flowers that it is known for like peonies. It is really crowded when those are in bloom and virtually deserted the rest of the year. There were some colorful flowers around though:
The garden also has elements of the more traditional Japanese garden look, with some nice paths covered by maple tree canopy:
There is a restaurant in the garden which I think is their main source of revenue. We had just eaten so we didn't go in (its pretty expensive too). It overlooks the vest viewing point of the garden, which we viewed from a bench outside:
After leaving the Hakozaki flower garden we pedaled downtown to Hakata, which is where the Rakusuien is located. This is kind of a remarkable little garden, originally built as a villa in 1906 by a local merchant and rebuilt as a garden by the city in 1995. It is on a tiny, postage-stamp sized plot of land right in the middle of the busiest part of the city, surrounded on all sides by high-rises.

What I find remarkable is that despite its size and location, they've done such a good job of screening out the surrounding buildings through the use of mature trees that when you enter you feel like you might as well be in the middle of the countryside.

The garden is surrounded by a really attractive tile-topped wall:
The front gate leads down a nice path into the garden lined with Japanese maples:
Admission to the garden is only 100 yen (about 1$). For an extra 300 yen you can have macha served in the tea room of this building:
The garden is tiny but they've made such effective use of the space that it creates the illusion of expansiveness:
There is a path leading around a central pond:
The pond is, as usual, stocked with carp that will frenzy around you if you make them think you have food for them, which we didn't. One of them did its best great-white shark impersonation for me:
It would have been much more terrifying if carp had been a species of fish which actually had teeth.

The garden also boasts a little waterfall:
And mature tree limbs being supported by stilts:
After wandering the garden for about 20 minutes we retired to the tea room to redeem our 300 yen tickets. The tea was probably good. I don't know though, I've never really taken to macha. The main benefit is that you just get to sit in a nice room and look at the pretty garden in peace and quiet, which is what I was really paying for, though Ena likes macha a lot and assures me it is extremely healthy:
One of the benefits of buying the macha ticket is that you get access to an exclusive part of the garden reserved only for the tea room people. Actually its basically just a tiny strip of the larger garden which they have put a little bamboo fence around, but it is nice to feel like you are a VIP. The other cool thing is that you have to wear geta (old style Japanese footwear) to go into that part of the garden:
Geta are a form of footwear that do not really complement modern socks very well. Ena and I adopted different strategies to get around this. I just jammed my toes in, forcing the sock to give way, while Ena put her feet in diagonally, avoiding the risk of any potentially-damaging sock stretching:
Our VIP section of the garden had a little hut we could sit in and look at the tea house:
That pretty much wrapped up Rakusuien, a bonny little garden indeed. After that we cycled over to Ohori Koen where we discovered the garden to be closed. So we called it a day. Not bad for a Monday.

Our tour of Fukuoka's gardens continues in this post here.